[interview] Amptweaker: James Brown

Here's FXDB's interview with James Brown of Amptweaker:

How did Amptweaker start?

From the beginning I wanted to make guitar pedals because I felt like it would be a good business starting point. The inventory costs are much lower than attempting an amplifier, and it was an area I had only dabbled in before. I was intrigued by the idea of giving a regular guy the ability to modify his amp by putting a pedal in front, and so I used my amp design knowledge to come up with ways to make it seamless to the amp. I also figured out a new feature, called Tight, that lets the user tweak the very thing I spent so much time on with artists at Peavey and Kustom... how loose or tight the attack of the distortion is. With this simple knob, you can dial it in for any playing style, pick choice, string gauge, scale length, pickup choice, etc rather than being stuck with what the amp designer thought felt right.

My biggest design contributions come from consumers who input ideas on my website. Working in big companies for years, I noticed how usually product ideas came about from huge dealers suggestions, or resulted from a bunch of 50 year old guys arguing in a room about what kids want to buy. A big reason I started Amptweaker was to get back to the way it USED to be, where artists and consumers ideas were incorporated into products by getting their feedback directly. So I started the company with a web page that was nothing but a big red "Product Suggestion" button... and people's ideas came pouring in.

Today there are so many useful ways to socially interact with consumers that I decided to change the typical company's one-way conversation telling you about their new cool device to a two-way interaction. I post ideas on Facebook and forums, and gather opinions on things before I ever start building them. Many of my product ideas that people think are novel came directly from my product suggestion button, or were ideas I came up with as a result. I've even redesigned some details after going to trade shows and getting feedback from artists, so that I knew the product would meet their goals when it hit the marketplace.

Other than the Tight control, other consumer ideas included the battery on/off switch, the LEDs shining on the knobs, magnetic battery access door, and the biggest one was adding an effects loop on the back. Nobody suggested adding a loop to the pedal, but so many people had so many combination pedal ideas that it finally hit me: what they REALLY want is the ability to hit one button and do two things. The loop is turned off/on with the pedal, so it builds a little team of pedals. I posted the idea on a forum, and immediately was asked if it could be moved pre or post, so I included a switch to position the loop.

Other people involved in the project are my friend Bob Hopkins, who came up with the original shape of the housing and who does the artwork for the pedals, and another friend who I got a lot of mechanical engineering help from, Ken Chappell. My daughter Kim helps me with marketing designs, and her husband Matt helps me with some of the assembly work. And my wife Phyllis builds every circuit board that goes into our products. So it's very much a team system from concept to building.

Where do the name and logo come from?

I used Amptweaker as a handle on the online forums for years, since I had designed amps for years at Peavey and later at Kustom. When I started my business, I was trying to come up with pedals that would let the customer tweak their own amps, and it just kind of made sense to use Amptweaker. It refers to both me and the products I build.

The logo was based on an idea I had for using a guitar pick shape with the letter 'a' inside, and was designed by my brother Robert Brown with some help from my daughter Kimberly Hatcher. I wanted something that could be used by itself, or with the whole word, so at a distance it would be recognizable... for instance if used on an amplifier.

What sets Amptweaker apart from other builders?

My company philosophy is more about building a brand than making a pile of money. I've been in the big manufacturing companies and worked with the high volume dealers enough to watch the personalized treatment leave the business. My whole reason to build this company was to get back to working directly with consumers and artists to make things they actually wanted... It's much easier to sell somebody something that they told you they wanted, than to try and convince them to buy something you just made up. So I believe the consumer interaction part of the company is the most important difference between us and other builders.

Our pedals are unique in almost every way. There are plenty of copycats in the music business... you could even say that most boutique pedals are all about copying and tweaking. My products don't look like any others, don't sound like any others, and have many features that are unique to the brand. We make them ergonomic, heavy-duty, and I spend a LOT of time tweaking the last 1-2% of the tone until they sound just right.

I think the biggest compliment we receive is that the pedals sound like amps... this should be no surprise since I've been designing amps for 25 years. Rather than start with a TS808 or something like that, I developed a unique multi-stage method of distortion that sounds like running multiple 12AX7 tubes into each other. So it just sounds like you added some more tube stages to your amp.

How do you start on a new pedal?

First I go through the consumer requests I've received and figure out what the next most important pedal should be. This process gets harder as more time goes by, since I get a TON of ideas from people, but so far it's working well. The electrical design process takes a lot of experimentation, but I guess the most time is spent thinking about what I want the pedal to do.

It usually takes 2-3 months to go from idea to production, but that's while also building production. It's taking longer now that we have 5 models to build, and I'm sure at some point in the future I'll have to start hiring some help to build pedals.

How do you name your pedals?

All my distortion pedals have names with Tight in the front, based on the Tight control which is unique to our pedals. This is a feature that enables the user to tweak the attack on the front of the distortion circuit to dial in how tight/chunky or how loose/floppy it feels. It's less noticeable to the sound as it is to the hand-ear coordination and how aggressive it sounds. And although it's fun to come up with wacky names that sound cool, I also wanted to pick names that wouldn't have to be explained with a subtitle. So I've tried to use names that are unique and yet obvious... those are usually already taken!

We do have a new pedal coming out at NAMM 2012 that has more of a made up, fun name... but it still describes the tones the pedal is capable of.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

At this time all our pedals are built in-house, although my son-in-law sub-contracts the knob drilling. My wife and I hand-build all the pedals.

My wife hand-assembles and hand-solders the pedals on a US-made double-sided fiberglass circuit board. It's all through-hole parts, and we use 1% tolerance metal film resistors and 5% tolerance mylar capacitors that are all high voltage to prevent static discharge from damaging them during plugging/unplugging. During final assembly, I hand-wire the effects loop jacks, battery clip, battery switch and bypass switch to the board.

I designed the enclosure of 14 gauge sheet galvanized steel, and have it laser cut, bent and powder-coated at a factory in the US. I take the painted enclosures to a local screen-printer who silkscreens the artwork on them. The magnets are glued in, and the door assembled to the bottom.

The knobs are made in the US, and my son-in-law Matt drills the side indicator holes on each knob.

When assembled, I compare a curve on a spectrum analyzer of the completed pedal to a standard one, and then play through them and sign and number each one. It takes me longer to test out a TightMetal because it's so fun to play through...

How important is the look of your pedals?

I think the looks are very important. Here's why: at Peavey we spent many years building what I always thought were great sounding amps... but sometimes they looked a little cheaper than other things out there. In the late 90's we hired a product manager named Bill Xavier, and he loved the sounds of the amps... but he wanted to kick the appearance up a notch. The Ultra Plus was a cool sounding amp that was somewhat plain looking, and we tweaked it into the Triple XXX, which had chrome special knobs, and mud-flap girls on its grill. It was a much bigger success, and I believed it was because it's not good enough to build the best-sounding amp out there... it also has to look cool to get people to even try it.

My friend Bob Hopkins came up with the initial shape of the Amptweaker pedals, and I refined it by adding the bar on the back that protects the knobs. The end result is a pedal that is very different at first glance than most, and all the cosmetic treatments area also related to ergonomic choices, like the angles to make the switch more accessible, and the knobs angled back so you can't step on them.

We also spend a lot of time choosing colors based on the product. At January NAMM 2011, I introduced the TightMetal in a shiny black finish, and Mark Kloeppel brought his prototype which was a textured black finish. All the metal guys thought Mark's pedal looked meaner than the shiny one I had, so I stopped production of the chassis and immediately changed it to the texture. After learning this, I actually did a survey for the TightRock to let consumers vote on the color/texture. I got an overwhelming response to this idea, and their chose was also very clear, so I used the shiny red paint on that one. Once again, listening to consumers is the way to go.

Is parts selection important?

I do all the purchasing for my parts, and I do pay a lot of attention to that. However, I don't go out of my way to buy NOS parts, known brands, since my circuits rely more on the values I tweaked into them than they do on certain brands of components that are typically listed by mojologists out there. I'm trying to build something that is durable, sounds great, and doesn't cost the consumer a million dollars. Like my website says, 'good tone comes from tweaking....' not from using orange drop capacitors.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

The TightDrive was a particularly big deal because it was my first product to ever design and build for my own company. I've built many many amps in my life, and a few pedals, but this felt quite different since I was so much more integral to the design, the features, the marketing, sales, every detail. Of course I had some help with a lot of it, but the TightDrive pretty much represents our entrance into the music business as a new brand... and one that works with consumers and artists to build what they want.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

The TightRock is the hardest to build, because it has SO many parts on the circuit board, and it has the extra SideTrak effects loop. I had to charge more for it, but it's still not quite proportional to the extra effort it takes to build them. But, it's also my personal favorite, and I use it at gigs all the time for my base lead tone.

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

The TightMetal is the most popular, and I think it's because there are not a lot of pedals that actually sound like playing through a high gain amp. I've designed a lot of high gain amps, including the 5150, XXX and JSX amps at Peavey and the Double Cross at Kustom, and so I used that experience to dial in a metal tone that a lot of artists are touring with now instead of using amps. I think maybe there's a low expectation for a metal tone in a pedal, and this pedal surprises people when they play through it.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

Each pedal I've done is a direct response to consumer requests. I originally did the TightDrive because overdrive was the overwhelming top choice of pedals to do, and the features on this model were developed for that crowd... both for playing a moderate distortion in front of a clean tone, and for overdriving a heavier tone. Many artists are using this pedal, including Rich Williams of Kansas and Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult.

After that, I received so many requests for a bass version, that I worked with Greg Weeks of The Red Chord to tweak one for bass-resulting in the Bass TightDrive used by guys like dUg Pinnick and Juan Alderete. I also build some with an extra modded knob on the face that blends in some dry bass to the tone, and that's been very popular.

The next pedal was due to requests for a lower gain version, so I did the TightBoost. It also has an idea I received a lot, which was a parked-wah sound, and I took it to the Nashville Amp Expo to adjust the 2 wah positions based on consumer feedback. Steve Stevens is using one of these to overdrive his amp.

So far I've only built one pedal specifically based on ideas from an artist, which was the TightMetal. Mark Kloeppel from Misery Index approached me early on to do this one, and of course MANY people asked for the same thing. So while it's not only designed for him, he did help me with the particular eq curve. He used a particular curve on his Ampeg VH140C amp, and when I borrowed one and measured it, I noticed that it looked similar to EVH's curve from the 5150. So I curved the 5150, and sure enough they were getting the same eq from two different amps set two different ways. This became the base tone of the TightMetal, and helps explain its popularity. It also needed a noise gate that stops the notes hard and fast, and the resulting pedal has been our number one selling product by a large margin.

Immediately after the TightMetal I received many requests for 'something in between', so I tweaked one down to a more moderate sounding TightRock. This pedal needed a different tone of course, not so heavy-sounding, and also needed the ability for much less gain and a more subtle noise gate. It also has a cool feature that I've never seen on another pedal, called SideTrak. It's an idea I got from a couple of players: how about a loop that works when the pedal is off? They wanted to be able to put things in there that would work for their clean, and when the TightRock is turned on, those effects would turn off. The response to this feature has been very high and I've even modded a lot of TightDrives and TightMetals to include it.

I have quotes from each artist on my website, but my favorite quotes are the ones that I couldn't post due to the expletives!

Are you working on any new products?

I'm currently working on our first non-distortion pedal. It's a pedal that I received the most requests for, and I've combined some various requests into a single pedal. It's also going to be the first 2 button pedal I've done, and we'll be showing it at January NAMM 2012 and shipping soon afterward. Check back on amptweaker.com for details as they emerge.

We're also beginning to consider building amps in the near future.

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